When a 25-year-old male experiences stress, he likely won’t have a major health event as a result. However, if he continues to have ongoing stress and perhaps picks up a few bad coping habits along the way – smoking, drinking, overeating – his health profile will be different at 55.
“Almost nobody comes in saying, ‘I’m stressed out’,” says Dr. Christopher Cannon, an interventional cardiologist with Providence Medford Medical Center. “Stress is not what patients are thinking about when they come in with chest pains, palpitations or irregular heartbeats. We have to be careful about blaming things on stress, but I believe it is very underappreciated as a major contributing factor to cardiovascular conditions.”
Cannon says there is significant scientific evidence that the slow impact of chronic stress over time can damage the immune system, elevate blood pressure and heart rate, and reduce life expectancy.
Common stress factors include marital strife, financial worries, unemployment, job difficulties, other health issues and life transitions, such as starting a family, the death of a family member, divorce, children leaving home. “Often, there is no easy solution,” Cannon says. “As doctors, we can’t just say ‘go, and have no stress.’ However, it’s important to recognize stress and address how to effectively cope with it and minimize it if possible.”
Dr. George Keepers, a psychiatrist at OHSU School of Medicine, says many methods of coping fall into the category of maladaptive behaviors, which are habits that are ultimately more harmful than helpful. “A lot of methods of coping with stress only makes things worse in the long run, such as alcohol, drugs and gambling,” he says. “It’s important to develop healthy coping mechanisms. These include maintaining good eating and sleeping routines and regular exercise. It’s also helpful to allow time for reflection in your daily schedule.”
Healthy coping strategies are useful, but reducing stress is the best step, Keepers says. “Identify and address behavior patterns that lead to stress, such as overwork, procrastination or avoidance of conflict. Also, avoid behaviors that invite stress. For some people, watching the news may be a source of stress. Turn off the TV and abstain from checking Facebook.”
Stress is such a normal part of modern life that sometimes just recognizing the signs of stress are tricky. “Sometimes people become irritable and stressed without realizing what’s going on; the people around them notice before they do,” Keepers says.
Cannon lists warning signs of stress influencing health as insomnia, forgetfulness, mood swings, fatigue, changes in eating habits, frequent headaches, gut issues, irritability and withdrawing from activities and social relationships. These symptoms can affect the body’s endocrine, metabolic and cardiovascular health, in addition to mental and behavioral health. Keeper says that if left unaddressed, stress is also a risk factor for developing depression.
Stress may not be the main ingredient in serious health problems, but it can be the one that stirs the pot, according to Cannon. “It’s not always simply the stress, but generally not taking care of yourself, which can stem from stress,” he says. “We eat more when we are stressed, for example. That can lead to other unhealthy habits, like lack of exercise, and cause other health problems like diabetes.”
Though it can be hard to see past the current situation, Keepers says it’s important to project into the future about how stress and negative coping strategies could damage health and life span.
“We can be vulnerable to the kinds of things that offer immediate relief, but we need to consider how our present behavior could affect our future,” he says. “We should acknowledge that life is stressful and not wait for a heart attack before developing healthy coping mechanisms.”